Prof. Disbrow tells us why an Indian MOM has arrived at Mars and other startling science facts.
Wow! It was a super-busy summer, science-wise. So, this month, rather than focus on a single topic, let’s look at some of the bigger stories that popped up over the last few months.
• In early August, after a 12-year journey, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft reached its target, the comet known as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (67P/CG). As Rosetta got closer to the comet’s nucleus, the pictures it sent back revealed one of the strangest objects humans have ever explored. At first, it looked like a dumbbell. Then a peanut. Then, sort of a peanut-dumbbell thing, or a… well, it really doesn’t look like anything you’ve ever seen before. But it is super-cool.
Best of all, on November 11, the lander Philae, which hitched a ride on Rosetta, will touch down on the comet! After attaching itself to 67P/CG (using harpoons and ice screws because there’s almost no gravity to speak of) the lander will begin doing science right from the surface of the comet, something that’s never been done before.
• If you still think diamond is the hardest substance on Earth, you’re a little behind the times. There are actually quite a few things that are harder than diamond. And, the hardest of them all is currently a man-made substance known as “Fullerite.” Fullerite is a substance made of “fullerenes.” Fullerenes are carbon molecules made up of 60 carbon atoms arranged in a sphere-like structure.
The spheres look a bit like those geodesic domes created by Buckminster Fuller and were named “fullerenes” as an homage to Mr. Fuller.
As you might guess, ultra-hard materials are incredibly useful in manufacturing and other industries. The problem with Fullerite is that it’s traditionally been insanely difficult to make, requiring pressures of around 13 GPa (that’s “Giga Pascals” or 130,000 atmospheres of pressure) and temperatures of about 800 degrees Celsius.
But a team of Russian researchers has announced they’ve come up with a way to reduce both the needed pressure and temperature. They claim that by adding carbon disulfide to the process, the pressure needed is cut to just 8 GPa (or 80,000 atmospheres) and the temperatures required drop to just about room temperature.
• Moving back out into the solar system, the past couple of weeks saw the arrival of not one, but two new robotic orbiters around Mars. The first to arrive, NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) arrived on September 21 and will study Mars’ upper atmosphere.
But the bigger news was the arrival of India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft. While the mission itself has relatively modest goals (MOM carries just five instruments), the fact that it successfully arrived at Mars at all (no other country has ever made it to Mars on the first attempt), has caused a great deal of excitement and pride amongst the Indian community (as it should). With MOM’s success, India becomes just the fourth entity to successfully reach Mars. (The other three being the U.S., the former Soviet Union and the European Space Agency.)
• You might remember back in May, I told you about the BICEP2 project. BICEP2 had detected gravity waves that were basically “fingerprints” of the “Inflationary” period that followed the Big Bang. “Inflation” is the process by which the universe grew from a pinprick to the immense everything we see around us. The existence of these waves is predicted by Inflation theory and their discovery was the first direct evidence for Inflation.
Unfortunately, the results just didn’t hold up. Other researchers found that the patterns detected by BICEP2 could be accounted for by minuscule silicate and carbonate particles scattered through interstellar space and magnetically aligned in a way that just happens to look exactly like the predicted patterns.
That’s right. What was initially reported as the biggest discovery of the 21st century might actually turn out to have been dust.
At this point, the results are still being sifted through and assessed. So, the original BICEP2 conclusions might still turn out to be true. (And, no, this result doesn’t invalidate either Big Bang or Inflation theory.)
But hey, that’s how science works. You have to be able to defend your results. Especially when you claim to have proof of how the Universe started!